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Female-Led Period Dramas to Celebrate Women’s History Month

As a part of Her Campus Conn’s Inspiring Women week, in honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I want to focus on the TV shows that highlight women as the central figures in history. With an asterisk, of course, because these are period dramas, meaning they are based on history but not completely accurate (some leaning more into the fictional than others). However, just because they are dramaticized versions of history doesn’t mean they don’t provide a great stepping stone to learning more about these female icons, whether a queen, an activist, or a telephone operator. Several of the series featured on this list are based on historical fiction or biographical books about these famous women, but all of the series are about women that you can research further to get a clearer picture on not only their life but also their time they come from.

Admittedly, I enjoy period dramas about royal women, so you will notice that the first half of the list is, well, period dramas about royal women. However, I made sure to balance out the list with the second half of the list featuring series about non-royal women, with varying levels of fame and status. Without further ado, and in no particular ranked order, here is a list of eight historical drama TV shows that you should definitely watch this March to celebrate Women’s History Month.

The Crown

The Crown follows Queen Elizabeth II, the current Queen of England and the UK, from the beginning of her journey as Queen. Season 1 starts out in 1947 when she marries Prince Philip, and by the end of Season 4, it is 1990, focusing on the volatile marriage between Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The series was always designed to be six seasons, changing the cast every two seasons to demonstrate the aging of the Queen: the young queen is played by Claire Foy in Season 1 & 2, the middle-aged queen is played by Olivia Coleman in Season 3 & 4, and Imelda Stanton has been casted as the older queen for upcoming Seasons 5 & 6. Although this show is definitely historical, focusing on monumental events for the British Royal family during the second half of the twentieth century, it is unusual for its genre because it is about people who are still currently in the spotlight. (They have already decided Prince Harry and Meghan’s story will likely not be included in the show.) So, it is even more important to remember that this show is a dramatized version of the royal family, based on the members and their lives but also including fictional, or at least not completely accurate, events, conversations, and personalities. It is an amazing show that is critically acclaimed for a reason, but take what is portrayed about the royals with a grain of salt.

The Crown is currently on its fourth season, which dropped in November 2020, but its final two seasons are still in the works. All seasons can be streamed on Netflix, and it has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Victoria

Victoria is based on Daisy Goodwin’s novel of the same name about the early life of Queen Victoria. I would strongly recommend reading the book as well, especially since Goodwin created the show, so many of the events and characters in the show are closely related to her own novel. The show—starring Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, and Tom Hughes—focuses on Queen Victoria’s life from the time she became queen until she marries Prince Albert. Queen Victoria, of course, is one of the most well-known British queens, monarchs even, ruling during the aptly named Victorian era throughout the nineteenth century. Of course, like the other dramas on this list, it leans into drama and romance, so again, although it is based on Queen Victoria’s life, it is made for the entertainment of readers and viewers.

Victoria is currently on its third season, all of which can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. It has an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Reign

Reign is probably the most dramatic and fictional of the period dramas on the list, very clearly made for teen viewers who watch the CW. (It is the same network that created Riverdale…) Reign is the story of teenage Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane), who is engaged to Francis, crowned Prince of France (Toby Regbo). To be honest, I found Mary and Francis’ relationship to be so cute, and it was the main reason I watched the show. However, I also really enjoyed watching Mary grow into her position as Queen, and learn to use her power and influence. But it is a teen drama, so although it is set in the mid to late sixteenth century, it is very much about the royal drama of the French court in love and rivalries with even a bit of a magical twist. Don’t let the target demographic stop you, though. The first two seasons of this show especially are definitely worth watching. And the costumes in this show are gorgeous.

All 4 of Reign’s seasons can be streamed on Netflix, and it has an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Spanish Princess

Based on Phillipa Gregory’s novels, The Constant Princess and The King’s CurseThe Spanish Princess tells the story of Catherine of Aragon, Princess of Spain (Charlotte Hope), who was first betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to the English throne. However, he died only months into her marriage, and she soon became the first wife to the notorious King Henry VIII of England (Ruairi O’Connor). This series was designed as a limited series on Starz, sequel to The White Princess about the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, King and Queen of England, in the fifteenth century. It only has two seasons with 8 episodes each, running about an hour. Starz is known for their historical series, also home to Outlander and Black Sails, so, similarly, this series follows the novels fairly closely despite dramatizing history. I truly appreciate the way that this show centers and reclaims Catherine in a history that has largely been dominated by Henry VIII’s antics and perspective.

Both seasons of The Spanish Princess can be streamed on Starz (or on Hulu with Starz add-on), and it has a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Mrs. America

Mrs. America centers on the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, more specifically the decade of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), telling the story from both sides of the political spectrum. There are the women who are pro-ERA: Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). And the women on the anti-ERA side, most notably, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her STOP ERA group, including Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson). Most episodes pay special attention to a specific woman who was crucial to either side as the show works its way to the 1980s and the defeat of the ERA with the election of Reagan. As the show reminds us at the end, though, the ERA is now closer than ever to getting passed with the recent ratifications of Illinois (2018) and Virginia (2020), making this series even more timely and fascinating. With its phenomenal star power, Mrs. America is a must-watch limited series that aired on FX with 9 total episodes that run about 50 minutes each.

Mrs. America can be streamed on Hulu, and it has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Cable Girls

Cable Girls is a Spanish period drama about four female telephone operators living and working in 1920s Madrid. Each of the very different women—Alba/Lidia (Blanca Suárez), Carlota (Ana Fernández), Ángeles (Maggie Civantos), and Marga (Nadia de Santiago)—begin working at the National Telephone Company, a symbol of the modern workplace for women. Alba (later discovered to be Lidia) begins her job under a false identity, and drama unfolds from there. This is a series about friendship and romance, and all the drama that comes from both. Much like the United States in the 1920s, Spain was experiencing a moment of relative prosperity and progress, and this show captures what it was like for women as they were just starting to break into the workforce as well as how they navigated their world at this time. Unlike the other series on this list, Cable Girls is a completely fictional narrative with fictional characters, though it is rooted in historical experiences.

Because Cable Girls is a Spanish show, you can watch it either with subtitles or dubbed in English. All 5 seasons of Cable Girls can be streamed on Netflix, and it has a 74% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker was a Black entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, known for becoming the first female self-made millionaire in America. Living from 1867 to 1919, she invented a line of hair care and beauty products designed for Black women, and promoted her products by traveling across the United States and giving in-person demonstrations. This show highlights the inspiring story of Madam Walker, an intelligent and successful Black woman thriving in a time when Black people in the United States had just been freed from slavery only to be oppressed again by violent and overtly racist reconstruction and Jim-Crow laws. In this series, Madam C.J. Walker is played by sensational, Academy-Award winning actress Octavia Spencer, who is highly praised for her portrayal as she is for all of her films. Self Made is based on Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles’ biography, On Her Own Ground the Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.  

Self Made is a limited series with 4 episodes that can be streamed on Netflix. It has a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes.

A series adaptation of a Jane Austen novel

Who is more synonymous with historical drama than Jane Austen? Probably no one, which is why you should definitely check out at least a series adaptation of one of her novels. Although Jane Austen is well-known for the romance in her novels, which is exactly the element these adaptations lean into, the plots are also loaded with the customs and traditions of Austen’s historical moment. And maybe it’s the English Major in me, but I recommend watching these series adaptations alongside or after reading the novels themselves because the novels, and the history they engage with and critique, are much more complex and fascinating than these series adaptations may suggest. Austen transports us back to England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, into the world of drawing-room courtships, wealthy estates, and inheritance competitions. But then again, even without knowing the historical complexity, sometimes it’s just as fun to just follow a couple you know will end up together (classic marriage plot) as they navigate and overcome the obstacles caused by their suitors, family, and friends.

The most famous of these limited series adaptations is Pride and Prejudice (1995) starring British icon Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, but Sense and Sensibility (2008) also has some notable names with Dan Stevens (think live-action Beauty and the Beast, Eurovision, and Downton Abbey) as Edward Ferrars to Hattie Morahan’s Elinor Dashwood, and Dominic Cooper (think Mamma Mia and Marvel’s young Howard Stark) as John Willoughby to Charity Wakefield’s Marianne Dashwood. Both of these series adaptations are a bit older, so if you want more of a recent twist on an Austen novel, you can try out the adaptation of her last (and unfinished) novel, Sanditon, which aired in 2019, with Rose Williams (also in Reign) as Charlotte Heywood, and Theo James (Downton Abbey and Divergent) as Sidney Parker.

Sense and Sensibility (2008) has 2 episodes of 1 hour and 20 minutes each with a 71% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. Pride and Prejudice (1995) has 6 episodes of 50 minutes each with an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. Both can be streamed on Hulu. Sanditon (2019) has 8 episodes about 45 minute each with a 95% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. It can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

Since this month is about the history of women, why don’t you check these series about well-known and lesser-known women from history, both real and fictional. Just remember, they are period dramas made for TV by Hollywood, so you probably shouldn’t rely on these shows for your next history paper.

Elizabeth, originally from just outside of Chicago, is a senior graduating early from Connecticut College where she is majoring in English with Psychology and History minors. She has an insatiable appetite for a compelling story and hopes to use that passion to pursue a career in publishing in a big city. If she’s not reading or writing another essay, she is binge-watching a new TV series, scrolling through Pinterest, baking cookies, or hanging out with family and friends.
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